Drought Shrivels Farmers' Crops and Income

George Lechlider, president of the Montgomery County Farm Bureau, stands on his farm, where drought has taken a heavy toll on his crops.
George Lechlider, president of the Montgomery County Farm Bureau, stands on his farm, where drought has taken a heavy toll on his crops. (Photos By Ricky Carioti -- The Washington Post)
By Lori Aratani
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, September 6, 2007

George Lechlider looks out his window and lets out a deep sigh.

"Look how tall and beautiful that corn looks," he says, motioning toward the Laytonsville area field outside the window of his car. From this vantage point, the corn does look quite lovely -- the stalks are tall, green and leafy.

He steers the car closer to the edge of the field, shakes his head and sighs again.

"It's hard to believe that there's nothing there," he says.

Indeed, closer inspection of the plants reveals the toll that a season without rain is taking on farmers in Montgomery County and across the state. The corn stalks are tall and green, but there are very few ears, and they are shriveled and skinny. Pull back the covering on the few that look hearty, and you see that there aren't any kernels.

The summer may have been ideal for those who prefer sunshine to raindrops, but for folks who grow corn, sod, soybeans and hay and raise livestock in Montgomery County, it's turning out to be a bust.

Next week, the County Council is scheduled to discuss a proposal to give $1.5 million in drought relief to farmers affected by the dry summer. The relief plan, which probably will include one-time payments to those who have significant losses, is being spearheaded by County Executive Isiah Leggett (D) and council member Michael Knapp (D-Upcounty).

Knapp said the funds are "a worthwhile investment to ensure that agriculture remains viable in Montgomery County."

"Most residents don't realize that nearly one-third of the acreage in the county is farmland and that the industry brings in more than $200 million in revenues," he said. And because it can be more expensive to do business in Montgomery than in other counties, local farmers may actually suffer more in bad years.

Farmers said the drought has forced cattle ranchers to dip into their winter hay stashes to keep the livestock fed because there isn't enough grass to graze on. Those who raise horses are scrambling to find hay. The lack of rain means the county's usually ample supply has literally dried up.

Lechlider said it's the worst he has ever seen -- and that's saying a lot for a man who has raised pigs and grown sod, corn, soybeans and hay in northern Montgomery County for more than half a century. He's 86 and still going strong, but summers like this test even hearty men like him, he said. It's not just Montgomery. According to an analysis by the National Drought Mitigation Center, 97 percent of the state is experiencing abnormally dry conditions.

Jeremy Criss, agricultural services manager for the county's Department of Economic Development, said officials do not yet have a firm dollar value on this year's losses but that it's likely to exceed the $10.6 million farmers lost in 1999, the last year in which the county offered relief payments to farmers. That year, farmers who could show they lost more than 20 percent of their crop were paid up to $30,000 each. Details of what farmers might receive under this year's proposal are being worked out.

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